Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Iditarod route changes

Big news from Alaska.  The 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog race has been moved north in favor of better conditions.  The race traditionally starts in Anchorage with a restart in Willow, but this year's lack of snow and thin ice has forced race officials to err on the side of caution.

Considering the amount of preparation a race like this requires, this is a pretty big deal.  Usually, the race alternates routes between a Northern route in even years and a Southern route during odd years.  As far as I understand, this allows for some of the more southern towns a chance to take part of the spectacle.  With this year's changes, towns such as Shageluk, Grayling, and Iditarod are going to have to wait another two years to see the mushers come through.  On the other hand, for only the second time in history, the race will have its restart in Fairbanks and run through Nenana, Tanana, and Koyukyuk and others before joining the normal course in Kaltag on to Nome.

The dog teams don't typically expect fans to line the entire race course; after all, the race is over one-thousand miles long.  The course isn't marked the entire way but I believe it is broken in by snowmobiles.  They must really be scrambling to pull this off with 18 days to go.  Plus, this will mean a lot of people are going to have to change their travel plans.  The Iditarod Air Force will be flying dog food and supplies into areas they probably aren't familiar with.  Additionally, race officials, media, veterinarians, and other support personnel will also have to adapt.

Fortunately, the original trail is all set and ready to go in Google Earth.  There's plenty of virtual snow for you and your students in RealWorldMath.org's Iditarod Challenge.  You can choose to honor the traditional southern route this year, or take the northern route if you wish.  Real World Math's Iditarod Challenge has students competing in a virtual sled dog race in Google Earth.  Each student gets to mush a team of sled dogs across Alaska from the comfort of their computers.  They'll use checkpoint information from the Google Earth Kmz download and the distance formula to calculate race times for each leg of the journey.  They'll also face a variety of hazards and good fortune along the way for a personalized race experience.  I'm gearing up a class of 6th graders for it now.  With over 20 checkpoints, it will take them just 10 minutes a day but over four weeks to complete the challenge.  Hopefully we'll get to Nome around the same time the mushers will.

Let's go, the dogs are waiting!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Updated Iditarod Challenge

Thomas Knolmayer's at the alternate start poin...
Thomas Knolmayer's at the alternate start point in Willow in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It's that time of year when our friends in Alaska are making the final preparations for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.  I've been doing likewise by updating Real World Math's Iditarod Challenge and all the accompanying materials.  This is a great project based learning activity for students in grade 5-8, and one that lends itself easily as an interdisciplinary lesson.

Real World Math's Iditarod Challenge has students competing in a virtual sled dog race in Google Earth.  Each student gets to mush a team of sled dogs 1049 miles across Alaska from the comfort of their computers.  They'll use checkpoint information from the Google Earth Kmz download and the distance formula to calculate race times for each leg of the journey.  It wouldn't be much of a race if everyone used the same information, so a set of Iditarod Fortune cards will personalize triumphs or tragedies along the way.  They might find an angry moose in their trail or smooth packed snow ahead.

The Iditarod alternates routes every year between a southern route in odd years and a northern route in even years.  I've updated the downloads now by adding a southern route, which is the one you should be using this year (although its seems Mother Nature has other plans).  You'll find other materials have been updated also.  The Student Checkpoint Sheet, where students keep track of their elapsed times between checkpoints, is also available for the southern route.  The Master Iditarod Time Sheet has also been updated and is offered as both an Excel spreadsheet and a Google Sheets version.  I haven't fully tried out the Google version yet, but I think it might work better since I can add negative values for elapsed time adjustments.  These spreadsheets will help you keep track of your students' times and check their work.  The real race starts on March 7th, so now is the time to download and get familiar with the materials.

There are around 24 checkpoints for the race.  Once the students have learned how to fill out their time sheets, it should only take 10 minutes of your class time to complete each leg of the race.  The Iditarod Challenge will take over four weeks to complete if you limit it to one checkpoint per math class.  For me, an extended learning event is one aspect of project-based learning, but it should also include other components.  A lot of information and links to online content about Alaska and the race can be found in the Google Earth file.  You'll have great opportunities to add web quests or incorporate Social Studies lessons with it.  Ask your PE teachers to get involved and have your  students find out what it's like for the dogs to pull someone around.  Gamify students' learning by posting a leaderboard in the room.  I've given out awards at the end of the event, including oversized phony checks and a Red Lantern Award for the last place finisher.

As always, I welcome any feedback you have on my materials.  Let me know what works and what doesn't.  Please share the activity with others.  Use the Twitter hashtag "#RWMiditarod" to let us know how it's going.

Let's go!  Mush!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mac video solution for Google Earth

FLV file Icon from Adobe Systems
FLV file Icon from Adobe Systems (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Google Earth is a fabulous application for viewing, not only the satellite views of our planet, but for other media as well.  You can annotate placemarks with text, images, or video, and link to pages on the Internet for viewing in the main window.  For over a year though, Mac users have been missing out.

When Google Earth was updated in late summer of 2013, Mac computer users suddenly found that embedded YouTube videos weren't working properly.  The template just showed a black screen and if you clicked on it, you were rewarded with Google Earth crashing.  This isn't an issue with PCs, so what gives?

I've been searching the user forums and help centers for quite a while now, and I think I finally found an answer - and a potential solution.  As far as I can understand it, the problem lies when you have several applications incorporated into another.  The Macintosh operating system is different from PCs, and so the Google Earth developers have to alter their code.  As we all know, tech doesn't stand still for anyone, and so if the developers of the different systems and applications aren't on the same page, then problems like this will arise.  The main culprit in this case appears to be how Mac computers use Adobe Flash video; at some point in 2013, Google Earth and Flash didn't add up.

Many thanks to user "piwei" in the Google Earth Help Forum.  According to piwei, Google Earth uses the Flash player installed for Mac's Safari browser.  So when Adobe made an update to Flash, it no longer worked in Google Earth.  Piwei's solution is to uninstall any Flash updates to Safari and install an older version of Flash.  Particularly, Flash version released in 7/9/2013 will fix the problem for Google Earth (thanks "solomonderweise").  You can read the forum thread here.  Remember to do this for the Safari browser on your Mac - I don't believe it's the case for other browsers.  You'll also want to avoid any automatic Safari Flash updates in the future.  You can find instructions on how to uninstall Flash in Safari here, and the archived versions here.  Remember, use the version listed above.

Problem solved?  Well, for myself,  I know videos in Google Earth will play now when I present material to a class or audience.  On the other hand, I have an outdated version of Flash in Safari which doesn't have the most current security updates, and so on.  I use Chrome as my browser, so I don't think this will be a problem.  The problem remains though for the common Google Earth Mac user.  I wouldn't expect everyone to go through this, and I cringe to think of someone doing all of this for an entire computer lab.  Still, if you're a hardcore Google Earth user, then at least you have a solution for the video problem.  Let's hope the Google Earth team can finally make a workaround in the next update.  It's time - we've been waiting.

Note:  You might find this is a solution for other incompatibility issues on Mac computers.  It most likely would occur when you're using a browser other than Safari on your Mac and a web-based program isn't working.  I think the reason for this is that when someone develops a version of an application for Macs, they're building it for the Safari browser.  That's the browser that comes with all Macs, so that makes sense.  Please let me know if you have any insight on this, or if my assumptions are wrong.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A New Purpose for Drones

Given the past week's events in Boston, I started to think about some different ways drones could be used to fight terrorists.  I think we're all familiar with the conventional way this has been done, but what are some other tasks that drones could perform?

If you're only familiar with the drones that have been used by the military in the Middle East, then the first thing you have to know is that drones come in all shapes and sizes.  A drone is essentially a pilotless aircraft, but another way to look at them is to call them by another name: robot.  If you've read my previous posts on robots and drones you'll know that I usually sprinkle some words of caution in their adoption.  This time I'm going to throw caution to the wind and try not think about the Orwellian or dystopian undertones

A good place to start, if you want to see what drones of the future can do, is the jaw dropping TED Talk by Vijay Kumar.  The drones in his demonstration resemble something you might find in a hobby store and can fit in the palm of your hand.  Their functionality is anything but childlike.  He and his students at the University of Pennsylvania programmed their swarms of drones to be agile flyers that could operate autonomously.  They're equipped with proximity sensors and can fly in a programmed flight path or operate independently.  So what if drones like these could be outfitted with bomb-detecting sensors?  Large populated events like the Boston Marathon or State Fairs could have swarms of these small drones flying through the crowd relaying their information to law enforcement.  There's already a group of companies like Qube working on law enforcement versions of drones.  Would it bother you to have a model aircraft buzzing your head?  Then how about a ground-based version?  I can't find my source, but there was a public radio story on a small robot that would nuzzle up against you and lead you to stores in a shopping mall.  Would you be more comfortable with a robotic form of bomb sniffing dogs weaving through the crowd?

One of the reasons drone aircraft have been so readily adopted by the military is that you don't have to worry about pilot fatigue.  I'm assuming they're much lighter than jets and so they can stay in the air for a longer period of time.  Since the drone pilot is sitting miles or continents away, he can take a break and have another operator take his place.  The lockdown in Watertown, MA lasted roughly 18 hours - couldn't drones have played some part in the search?  Drones could follow a precise search pattern and be flown at a lower altitude beneath the helicopters.  I'm not up to speed with all of the camera specs of drones but I'm assuming it's pretty good.  Would a group of drones with night vision and infrared fared better than their human counterparts?  Wouldn't a drone have been a good option for surveying the toxic scene after the Texas fertilizer plant explosion?

Finally, I'm reminded of Adam Carolla's idea for attack crows.  Crows are pretty nasty but perhaps a swarm of drones could have flushed suspect #2 out of the boat.  Could a group of drones incapacitate an individual?  Or what if a flock of drones were launched when the bombs went off to capture the scene in video?  A drone wouldn't react to the panic and confusion like a human would; maybe a set of drones could have provided better view of who was there and where they were going.  With all of the influence that technology had in this latest terror attack, I wouldn't be surprised at all if drones played a helpful role in the next one.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Terrorism in the Digital Age - Lessons from Boston

Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005
Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Like everyone else, I've been riveted to the news coming out of Boston for the past week.  It's hard to understand why anyone would have done such a thing.  It's equally confusing why they thought they could have gotten away with it, because with each day technology is transforming the world we live in.

We're no longer reliant on CNN or other news agencies to provide our continuous news feed; the  Internet and other digital media is where people go to find information now.  This is a double-edged sword: on one hand the amount of instantaneous information being relayed has increased exponentially while on the other hand the validity of the content should be viewed with a critical eye.  Reddit, Twitter, and other online sites have played a significant role in the national discussion on the Boston Marathon bombings and the search for the perpetrators.  Forget about nightly or even hourly updates, most people are looking minute by minute for accurate information.  This must put a considerable strain on news services and other credible sources of information with detrimental effects.

I won't attempt to comprehend the bombers' minds but if escape was one of their goals they made a serious miscalculation.  Performing their deeds at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, with video and so many cameras present, made their discovery just a matter of time.  I'm curious to learn just how many images were submitted and reviewed by the FBI; it must be a staggering number.  It occurred to me early in the week how online crowdsourcing could be used to review the images in a more expedient manner.  This seems like a good idea until you see how different Reddit threads became what Alex Hern at NewStatesman describes as "a racist Where's Waldo?"  Several individuals became prime suspects in the cyber world followed by several news organizations trying to play catch-up by posting their faces on page 1.  It would seem that eventually even the FBI decided the eyes of the multitude might do more good than harm in their investigation.  After posting video of the suspects and the relevant time stamp, some of the best images were discovered.

Security cameras from several establishments on Boylston Street provided additional images and  left some to call for an increased amount of video surveillance in America's cities.  Closed-circuit television has been used extensively in London for years with little effect, but what I find puzzling is how Americans could lobby for more CCTV surveillance when it can't even enact mandatory gun registration.  CCTV rings of Big Brother and seems to go against an American sense of freedom, or does it?  I think this is an interesting discussion: do you have a right of privacy in a public place?  People are constantly setting off alarms over Google's privacy issues, even its Google Glass before they are released.  We can all anticipate some level of surveillance within business buildings or even online, but what about in the neighborhood park?  As I mentioned in a previous post on Drones, privacy issues are going to be tested in the 21st Century.  How do you feel about this?

As the manhunt reached its peak, we found that technology once again didn't disappoint us.  Police tracked the fleeing suspects using the carjacked victim's cellphone.  News stations used Google Earth views extensively to give us the lay of the land.  While the reporters and TV crews were kept at a safe distance, eyewitnesses in Watertown began Tweeting us updates on the action.  Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) tweeted as law enforcement engaged the suspects outside his window and did a TV interview during the lockdown via Skype where he was able to point out the bullet holes in his walls.  Watertown was overwhelmed with boots on the ground but at the climax it was thermal imaging equipment and a police robot that provided essential functions that made sure all those boots got home safe.

So now that it seems this crisis has reached its conclusion, we'd be wise to contemplate on how technology is transforming the world we live in.  Technology contributed greatly to the bombing investigation but it also gave us a view of the ethical and societal issues we'll be facing in the digital age.  Laying in hospitals across Boston, the survivors of that terrible day are the ones who need it most of all now.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

5th Anniversary of RealWorldMath.org

Funny how time flies.  As I checked my calendar, I was surprised to see that today is the 5th Anniversary of RealWorldMath.org.  It's hard for me to imagine that it has only been 5 years but then again I'm even more amazed at how far we've come.

I consider myself fortunate to have latched onto the 21st Century movement in Education when I did.  I don't know if that makes me one of the pioneers, but I started this journey in good company.  Real World Math was my Masters project in Educational Technology after starting my graduate work in 2006.  At this time, Google was just gaining in prominence and expanding its offerings to other areas; they acquired YouTube, and Google Earth was just a couple of years old.  This was also the time when social media was beginning.  Twitter was born and Facebook was growing exponentially.  Leaders in Educational Technology began to emerge.  Steve Hardagon was starting Classroom 2.0, Jerome Burg was about to launch GoogleLitTrips, and bloggers, such as Will Richardson, began to provide a narrative for thought leadership.  The Web 2.0 phenomenon was in full swing with a plethora of blogs, wikis, and personal websites being added every day - an Internet Renaissance.  It was all new to me but as I look back now I realize that it was new to most people.  

At that time, it wasn't the notion of creating a website for the Internet that I found daunting but rather creating a website that anyone would notice.  Perhaps the true power of the Web wasn't realized yet.  After moving RWM last summer it has been harder for me to get an accurate count, but I place the number of unique visitors to the site to be well over 200,000.  What I find incredible about that number is that one can assume that, for the most part, it is made up almost entirely of math educators.  That pleases me greatly not only for the sense of accomplishment but it also validates the work that I set out to do - a transformation of math learning.  Whether you lean more towards Dan Meyer's work or Sal Khan, I think the bar is moving, and that is a good thing for everyone.

The other thing I find encouraging about the 200,000+ visitors is that they've come from over 141 countries.  I get the most traffic from English speaking countries (United States, Canada, and Australia) but RWM has also gotten the attention from countries on every other continent.  I feel the true global impact of the Internet is still to be seen, but once people of different languages can collaborate without restriction I think we'll see another large shift in what gets accomplished.

So, in retrospect, maybe it doesn't seem like it's been five years because gauging time with technology is like calculating in dog years.  Maybe one year for you and me is like 5 years of technology?  No doubt it's an exciting time to be living in for anyone who lives on the web.  Let's hope the next five years will be good for Real World Math.  As alway, I thank you for your support.

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Attack of the Drones

Drones (Photo credit: Ars Electronica)
The topic of drones has come to the nation's attention again with the leak of an administrative policy memo.  The brief appears to be a legal justification for targeting Americans abroad who have formed an allegiance with enemy combatants.  This seems to me to be a preclude to a number of ethical questions the nation will face regarding the use of drones.  I think we would be wise to raise these questions with students today since, for good or bad, drones will undoubtably play a larger role in future.

Whenever I have a group of Guam students looking at the island in Google Earth, they are always surprised that they are able to get a bird's-eye view of the local Air Force base.  The ability to see rows of F-18s parked on the tarmac doesn't seem right to them because in reality they don't have access to the base.  Some question whether Google is giving assistance to enemies by providing these views.  From Street View's privacy issues to objections from foreign governments, questions such as these illustrate how advances in technology can sometimes move faster than what public discourse is ready for.

I think most people would be surprised to learn that the number of drone attacks increased significantly when Barack Obama became President.  Less than 50 strikes were reported in 2008 compared to over 120 in 2010.  (This will undoubtably be a topic raised during John Brennan's upcoming CIA Chief confirmation hearing since Brennan is credited as leading the drone program in recent years.)  The argument for military drone aircraft is that they don't require a pilot in the traditional sense.  They are controlled by persons hundreds of miles, or perhaps continents, away. This puts American pilots out of harm's way and makes pilot fatigue a non-issue.  I'm sure military drone aircraft are also less expensive to manufacture and maintain than traditional fighter jets.  The drones may also be more accurate in their targeting, which leads me to arguments against.  A number of strikes in the Middle East have resulted in large numbers of civillian casualties.  If the drones are expendable, does that encourage an even greater use of them?  I think the fact that drones are un-manned aircraft gives most people pause.  How do you feel about sending robots out to kill other humans?  This seems to be a question out of science fiction, but it is the reality of today and a question I think we should pose to students.

What are the acceptable limits of drone use?  I don't mean to present myself as a drone opponent.  I think there is incredible potential in their use (as you can see in the video below) but I think the drone discussion should begin now.  It will be an issue today's youth will face in their daily lives and as the drone industry grows they may find themselves a part of it.  So what do you think? Should drones be used to patrol our borders?  Should police departments have them?  How do you feel about a squadron of drones enforcing our nation's speed limits?  What does "pilot-error" mean in regards to drones?  How do you feel about advertisers using drones?  What does drone airspace mean?  How big can a drone be?  How small?  Can a drone block your view of something?  Can a drone play audio?  How loud?  Would you accept homework from a student's drone?  How would you prove drone crimes? Should we keep drone technology - the good and the bad - away from other countries?  What would a terrorist do with a drone?  What would a drone war look like?

I would love to do a post devoted to the positive use of drones.  They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and show great promise in aid to the environment, medicine, and safety.  Call me paranoid, but right now, I'm thinking about the drone hazards we may face tomorrow.

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